In just two seasons, Lower Decks established itself as one of the very best Star Trek spinoffs simply by doing something that looks easy. but isn’t: It didn’t have any bad episodes. Like creator Mike McMahan’s previous employer Rick and Morty, each episode maintains an elaborate lore while crafting a perfectly structured and funny tale every time. Not to mention it does so while keeping within existing Trek canon. If Star Trek aspires to follow the biblical admonition that “Whatever you to do the least of my brothers, you do unto me,” it passes muster. The Lower Deckies are the absolute least of Starfleet, in terms of rank and respect. Yet they frequently get the best writing.
Happily, that mostly continues in season 3 (8 of the 10 episodes screened in advance for press). But both within the narrative and external to it, the series finds itself dealing with being popular, and no longer the underdog. The clearest manifestation of that can be seen in the number of guest stars who’ve clearly realized this is a hip show to appear on. As with Boba Fett and Ahsoka showing up on The Mandalorian, it makes for several cheer moments for fans.
But it’s also risky territory — an episode set on Deep Space Nine feels more centered on the special guest stars than the regular cast. And these particular guest stars sound out of practice doing their voices. As cool as it is to catch up with legacy characters, given the rest of the franchise’s fascination with prequels, Lower Decks needs to be cautious not to make them the main event.
Meanwhile, the actual main characters border on being cool this season, which is dangerous, because their appeal lies in their dorkiness. Mariner’s backstory featured prominently in prior seasons. This time, it’s Tendi and Rutherford’s turn, with a little for Boimler. At least Boimler remains dorky, although in a possible tribute to Seinfeld‘s George Costanza, he spends several episodes pointedly doing the opposite of his impulses. Tendi and Rutherford’s origins hint at prior Ned Flanders-ish turns from delinquent to nerdy, which can feel a bit much. Aren’t nerds just allowed to be nerds?
The first episode feels right, solving the season 2 cliffhanger more in spite of than, because of, the actions of our protagonists. Later, though, they earn cool cred in the eyes of others, and encounter new characters who respect their reputations. Are we ready for these underdogs to become heroes so soon? Or is this all a big set-up for one big climactic failure? We get plenty of laughs along the way — as usual, the Trek in-jokes are strong in this series — but it looks like this crew might develop and change just as much as some of their live-action counterparts.
One of the advantages of animation for a space show is that it doesn’t necessitate occasional lower-budget episodes with cheaper sets. There is an episode that focuses on a single character. But it also serves as a parody of the whole notion of such, focusing on a really minor player and skewering sci-fi tropes about peaceful native tribes in harmony with nature. Parents and prudes should be forewarned: This season in particular is unafraid of using weird sexual fetishes as punchlines. Anyone upset by She-Hulk discussing Captain America’s possible virginity will not want to boldly go into some of these detours.
The confidence in the long game does change the storytelling for the better. It’s clear some things planted now will pay off later, and events from previous episodes don’t just get forgotten. Who knows how long Lower Decks will remain cool? But so long as it does, and buys Mike McMahan the cred to take more chances, that’s all for the better.
Star Trek: Lower Decks season 3 premieres on Paramount+ starting Aug 25.
Recommended Reading: Star Trek: The Next Generation: Through The Mirror
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